I’ve gone through creative dry spells. Everybody does, but when it is happening to you, it is hard to not take it personally and forget that the condition is common. It is easier to talk about it when the episode is over. It’s a little like childbirth: Give me a while before I tell you about how it was to deliver an 11 pound child.
Reading through the rich responses to Jerry Saltz’s recent posting on the reality of being an artist (here) started me thinking (again) about the highly interior and intensely private nature of the struggle for flow. So many artists owned up to and spoke about their experience with such candor, and I was deeply touched by many of their words.
One writer included a link to Susan K. Perry, a psychologist and writing consultant, who is also the author of Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity. Over the years Perry has collected a list of the most common fears that lead to creativity blocks:
The worry that the work isn’t good enough
The fear that I have no talent.
The fear that, if anyone notices my work in the first place, they won’t like it.
The fear of appearing foolish.
The fear of not being able to finish a long project, or of dying before it’s done.
The fear that I’ve wasted my time.
The fear of offending somebody.
A terror of leaping into the abyss of the imagination.
Feeling I’m in over my head, that I won’t be able to do this without appearing stupid.
The fear that I’ll run out of ideas and never be able to produce anything again.
Does anyone ever conquer all of these demons? Probably not. Virginia Woolf wrote, “Is the time coming when I can endure to read my own writing without blushing—shivering and wishing to take cover?”
Perry points to another writer’s insights:
The brilliant writer David Foster Wallace, who, like Woolf, committed suicide, was interviewed in 1997 on NPR’s Fresh Air. Asked by Terry Gross whether, when he was a teen tennis player, his self-consciousness interfered on the court, he said, yes, of course. He went on to wonder whether perhaps those listening have “this part in their brain” that allows them to turn off thoughts of “what if I double fault on this point, or what if I miss this free throw, or what if I don’t get this strike with the entire bowling team hanging around.”
Wallace at first figured “this stuff” doesn’t occur to professionals, then added, “but when I hung out with pro players for the tennis essay, it occurred to me that they have some kind of muscle that can cut that kind of thinking off.” Such self-consciousness, he said, is “literally paralyzing. You can end up like a bunny in the headlights.” Wallace couldn’t turn it off and gave up tennis.
One of Perry’s suggestions for dealing with the feeling of being frozen by a fear: Trivialize the task.
I adopted it as one of my mantras because it really works. For a writer, for example, what this means is accepting that a creative career or a creative life is a long evolving process, not a single product—and certainly not an unpolished draft of a product.
It helps to think of yourself as playing at whatever you’re doing. If it feels like work and nothing but work, maybe you’re doing it wrong. Because you can’t fail. You just try again, or you try something else, or you try in a different way.
In a different post Perry compares creativity to making love. That’s extra credit reading.
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